Sir Joshua Reynolds, an English painter, born at Plympton, Devonshire, July 16, 1723, died in London, Feb. 23, 1792. He was educated in the free grammar school of Plympton, of which his father, the Rev. Samuel Reynolds, was master. In his 18th year he was placed with Hudson, the principal portrait painter of the time, and while with him made many careful copies of drawings by Guercino, which probably disqualified him in after life for drawing correctly from the living model. About the age of 20 he settled as a portrait painter in Plymouth, and through the assistance of Lord Mount Edgecombe, Captain (afterward Lord) Keppel, and other naval officers, commenced his career with considerable success. After the death of his father in 1746 he removed to London. In 1749 he accompanied Keppel in his ship, the Centurion, to the Mediterranean, and for three years and a half studied his profession in various cities of Italy. In the Vatican he caught a severe cold which resulted in permanent deafness. He was unable at first to appreciate the paintings of Raphael, and they never had much influence upon his style, which naturally imitated that of the great Venetian masters more than any others.
He returned in the latter part of 1752 to London, and by a full-length portrait of Commodore Keppel, executed not long after his arrival, placed himself at the head of his profession in England, and in public estimation almost on a level with Vandyke. Thenceforth until the close of his life he enjoyed unvarying prosperity. He was soon obliged to employ several assistants to paint the draperies and other accessories of his pictures. His paintings were very numerous, 244 being sent to the academy for exhibition. Dr. Johnson mentions in 1762 that his professional income was 6,000 guineas a year, and it must subsequently have reached a much higher sum, as his price for heads was increased gradually from 10 guineas in 1752 to 50 in 1779, the other sizes being in proportion. Of his portraits, which, as Macaulay has observed, "have preserved to us the thoughtful foreheads of so many writers and statesmen, and the sweet smiles of so many noble matrons," the number is very considerable, and the technical merits, especially with respect to color and chiaroscuro, are of the first order. His portraits of women and children are among the most admired productions of modern art.
Among the portraits of distinguished persons painted by him may be mentioned those of Gen. Elliot (Lord Heathfield), Lord Ligonier on horseback, Sterne, Goldsmith, Dr. Johnson, Burke, Boswell, Wyndham, Earl Camden, Fox, Erskine, George III. and his queen, Horace Walpole, Beattie, John Hunter, Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy (for which in 1762 he received 300 guineas), Mrs. Siddons as the tragic muse (a picture which he valued at 1,000 guineas), the celebrated Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire, the earl and countess of Bute, and himself. His productions in history are generally admitted to be much inferior to his portraits, though many of them have been greatly admired. Among the most remarkable are his "Count Ugolino and his Sons," painted in 1773, and purchased by the duke of Dorset for 400 guineas; the designs of the cardinal and Christian virtues and the Nativity for the window of New college chapel, Oxford; the "Infant Hercules strangling the Serpents" (1784), now in St. Petersburg, for which the empress Catharine paid his executors 1,500 guineas; the "Cauldron Scene from Macbeth," "Puck," and the "Death of Cardinal Beaufort," for which he received respectively 1,000, 100, and 500 guineas; the "Holy Family," in the British national gallery; and "Cymon and Iphigenia," and the "Death of Dido," both in the queen's private collection.
His "Strawberry Girl," formerly in the collection of Samuel Rogers, "Samuel Kneeling in Prayer," the portrait piece in the national gallery representing three ladies as the Graces decorating a terminal statue of Hymen, and the "Puck" above mentioned, illustrate very happily his taste and fancy in painting women and children. But many of these pictures are hastening to decay, owing to the introduction of wax and other incongruous mixtures, and the use of asphaltum glazes. Burnet says: "So anxious was he to combine the luminous qualities of the Venetian style with the rich transparency of Correggio and Rembrandt, that half his life was spent in trying experiments on the various modes of producing this union, and which has occasioned the decay and destruction of many of his works;" and Northcote tells us that he deliberately scraped away and destroyed Venetian paintings of value in order to discover their technical secrets. On the foundation of the royal academy in 1768, Reynolds was chosen its president and knighted. He retained this office until the close of his life, delivering within that period 15 annual discourses on art, which have been translated into various languages.
A complete edition of his literary works forms vols. lxviii. and lxx. of Bohn's " Standard Library," and contains his lectures, some contributions to the " Idler," remarks upon the works of Dutch and Flemish painters during a tour through the Netherlands in 1781, and other miscellaneous pieces, together with a life of the painter by Beechey. In private life Sir Joshua was remarkable for amiability and his varied and instructive conversation. Johnson, Goldsmith, Burke, Garrick, and other distinguished literary men were his intimate associates, and he was one of the founders of the " Literary Club," of which they were prominent members. In the latter part of 1791 he was threatened with loss of sight in consequence of a tumor over his left eye, and at once resigned the practice of his art, the last effort of his pencil being a portrait of Fox. He died, after a painful illness, of a disease of the liver. He was never married, and his fortune, estimated at £80,000, was bequeathed to his niece, Miss Palmer, subsequently marchioness of Thomond. - There is a life of him by Northcote, valuable as a record of his conversation and aphorisms, and one by William Cotton. A biography left unfinished by C. R. Leslie was completed and published under the editorial supervision of Tom Taylor (2 vols., London, 1864-'5). See also "English Children as painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds," by F. G. Stephens (1866); "Sir Joshua Reynolds as a Portrait Painter," illustrated with autotype reproductions from engravings by Green, Watson, and others, by J. Churton Collins (fol., 1873); and " A Catalogue Raisonné of the Engraved Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, from 1755 to 1820," by Edward Hamilton (1874).